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The History of Privacy in the Digital Space: Overview


When Al Gore invented the internet, it’s quite likely that he didn’t truly know the Pandora’s box he was opening. In the last few decades, the unbelievable access to information that the internet as afforded us has been both revolutionary and, in many respects, unbridled.

Throughout the years, the information super highway has led to AOL (“You’ve got mail!”), Google (it’s a verb now), Facebook (thanks, Mark), Skype, instant news, connections to long lost classmates/friends/dogs, vintage record players (we found ours on Craigslist), and endless procrastination possibilities (that’s why it’s taken me so long to write this article).

However, the internet’s ability to make the Earth seem as small as your computer screen has also caused incredible strife, hardship, and the necessity for legislation. In 2009, the city of Boston was held in suspense as the Craigslist killer wreaked havoc via the internet. In 2010, Bradley Manning’s rampant release of classified military information to wikileaks put the United States government in a high state of panic. Earlier this year, when Egyptian authorities were completely unsure of what was to become of their country, one of their first courses of action was to shut down nationwide access to Twitter. Information is power, right?

The Fourth Amendment says: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

The Fourth Amendment is generally cited as the basis for digital privacy legislation, though it leaves some obvious gaping holes. It only asserts an individual’s rights in regards to the government. It does not speak to the ability of marketers, potential employers, and the general public to scour the internet for incriminating photos, tidbits of information, and unflattering insights (true or untrue).

The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights declared privacy a basic human right in 1950. However, what is the definition of said privacy?

On the one hand, we can argue that, if you put information out there – photos on Flickr, random musings on Twitter, and pretty much all of your personal information short of your Social Security number (…or did you have to give that to register?) on Facebook – then it falls in the public domain.

On the other hand, internet predators rely on the fact that the casual internet user does not have time to read the privacy policy of every single website he or she accesses. Marketers can therefore write information-siphoning clauses into the fine print and begin targeting users for Father’s Day gifts, dating websites, and headshots in New York City (actual ad currently featured on my Facebook page).

So what should we do? If we have access to this well of information about the general public, we are fools not to use it. However, at what point have we gone beyond convenience (thanks, Facebook ad, for suggesting Shari’s Berries as a Mother’s Day gift! The multiple chocolate covered fruit products that my grandmother received as presents were delicious on Sunday!) to creep-tastic (those worthy of the cyber equivalent of the Do Not Call list)?

It is clear that regulation of digital privacy is on the horizon. As a casual internet user, what do you think of the future of digital privacy? As an advertiser, how would you like to see digital legislation evolve?



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